Sex allegations against founder derail WikiLeaks' momentum
Friday, September 10, 2010
STOCKHOLM - Until a few weeks ago, Julian Assange was riding high.
The self-appointed paladin of uncomfortable truth had just whipped up a media storm in Washington, revealing 70,000 classified Pentagon documents that portrayed the U.S. war in Afghanistan in a way often at odds with the official cheerleading. Further riling the intelligence bureaucracy, his WikiLeaks organization was promising that 13,000 more such documents had been leaked and would be made available soon.
But since that triumph in July, which U.S. officials qualified as a dangerous transgression of secrecy rules, Assange, and by extension his crusade, has been damaged by allegations from two Swedish women that he subjected one to rape and the other to sexual harassment, according to assessments by Assange, his attorney and his associates.
As a result, within WikiLeaks, an amorphous collection of computer wizards who publish data that governments try to keep from the public, some Assange followers have proposed that he back away from his public role, at least pending the rape proceedings. From WikiLeaks' beginnings in 2006, however, Assange has been not only the leader but also its soul; it is an open question how effective the loose network would be without his relentless campaigning.
Assange, a lanky 39-year-old Australian with unruly white hair, has gone into seclusion here while Sweden's director of public prosecution, Maryanne Ny, investigates the accusations and decides whether to bring formal charges. In several interviews and online statements, meanwhile, Assange has proclaimed his innocence. He indeed had sex with the two women, he said, but it was consensual in both cases.
The accusations, he suggested, were part of a U.S.-orchestrated smear campaign to undercut WikiLeaks' prestige, discourage potential leakers and, in particular, frustrate plans to reveal the next batch of classified Pentagon documents.
Although the sexual misconduct accusations are murky and the handling of the case has been controversial, no evidence has surfaced that Assange fell victim to some kind of intelligence-agency honey trap, according to Assange's supporters and Swedish journalists who have investigated the case. But if there had been a trap, it was successful, embarrassing Assange and calling his leadership into question.
"There have been headlines all over the world about my being accused of rape. They won't just disappear," Assange acknowledged to Stockholm's Aftonbladet newspaper. "And I know by experience that WikiLeaks' enemies will continue to bandy around things even after they have been renounced. I don't know who is behind this, but we have been warned that, for example, the Pentagon plans to use dirty tricks to spoil things for us."
Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic member of Parliament who assisted Assange in editing an Army helicopter cockpit video revealed in April, said after reviewing the Stockholm police report that she doubted that the charges resulted from a U.S. manipulation. "But once the reports were in the media, powers that are used to manipulating the media immediately seized on it," she added in a telephone interview from Reykjavik.
Leif Sibersky, a Stockholm defense lawyer retained by Assange, launched his public defense by accusing the prosecutor of procedural irregularities that resulted in unproved accusations being aired in the Swedish press, irreparably damaging Assange's reputation. But Sibersky has been unable to deal effectively with the charges themselves, he said, because the prosecution has yet to provide him with official information on what the women told police.
Ironically, Assange came to Sweden for protection from his enemies. The Pirate Party, a Swedish political group dedicated to free access to Internet information, signed an agreement with him that, according to party leader Rick Falkvinge, was designed to bestow the legal protection of a recognized Swedish political party to WikiLeaks activities here.
Perhaps most important, Assange hoped to benefit from Swedish press protection laws, among the most stringent in the world. Not only are journalists protected from revealing their sources, officials explained, they also are forbidden under law from revealing them if the source requests it. Moreover, they noted, government officials are barred from investigating - or even asking - who the source of a leak was, except in certain cases affecting national security.